For our World AIDS Day 2011 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- regular contributors and those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.
I'd like to dedicate this blog to the incredible work done by Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. I have had the great fortune to be a speaker for Love Heals for the past 10 years, which has allowed me to be a part of their effort to educate young people by sending HIV-positive people like me to speak at high schools and middle schools throughout the New York tri-state area.
Let me begin with a little history of Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. Alison Gertz was infected with HIV through a single sexual encounter when she was 16. Soon after discovering she had AIDS, Ali made her story public in an effort to help others. She quickly rose to become an internationally recognized spokesperson for AIDS awareness and prevention. Ali devoted her final years to providing young people with the information they needed to protect themselves from contracting HIV. She knew that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. After Ali died in 1992, her three best friends -- Stefani Greenfield, Victoria Leacock Hoffman and Dini von Mueffling -- continued her mission by cofounding Love Heals. Today, Love Heals reaches more than 40,000 young people each year.
I tested HIV positive on Valentine's Day of 1987 and have written extensively about my journey with HIV/AIDS on this Website. I have always said that I was born gay and born an alcoholic, and it took testing HIV positive for me to go from a functioning alcoholic to a completely out of control alcoholic/addict. It took getting sober for me to be able to deal with my HIV, and Ali Gertz played a part in getting me sober.
I grew up in Westhampton Beach at the end of Seafield Lane overlooking Dune Road, where Ali Gertz's parents had a summer home. Coincidentally, Ali's mother and my mother shared the same hairdresser, Eddie Urbanelli, who had a salon in Westhampton Beach. My mother always raved about what a sweet man Eddie was, and was always trying to get me to meet him; but I always told her I had enough gay hairdresser friends, I didn't need another! But when we finally did meet, Eddie and I became the best of friends. We became even closer when we both found out we had HIV.
Eddie dealt with his disease by living life to the fullest; he bought a horse and a sailboat and became passionate about riding and sailing. I dealt with my disease differently: I drank and drugged and felt sorry for myself. By the summer of 1992, my drinking had become so bad that my father, a doctor, put me on Antibuse, a drug that makes one violently ill when they drink alcohol ... but it didn't even slow me down. All my family and friends were concerned about my drinking, especially my best friend Eddie.
Eddie told me about a young girl who was dying of AIDS at her parents' house on Dune Road and asked if I'd like to meet her. My recollections of that day are vague as I probably fortified myself with a few drinks before we went. But afterwards Eddie said wasn't it amazing what that young woman did with the knowledge of her disease by going public and talking about it to the media and at schools all over New York. And then he looked me straight in the eyes and said: "And look what you've done with the knowledge of your disease; you're nothing but a DRUNK!"
I will NEVER forget how hurt I was to have my best friend, a man whom I adored and respected, look at me with such disgust and say those words! It had a profound effect on me and those words, along with a few more angels and miracles, got me to an alcohol/drug rehab at the end of that summer. I've been clean and sober ever since.
Now, as one of Love Heals' HIV-positive speakers, I go out to schools and put a face on the epidemic. I do it in honor of both Ali and Eddie, as well as several of my nearest and dearest friends who have died of AIDS -- like Diana Emmett, who was my co-speaker at Love Heals for many years before she too died of AIDS.
Love Heals believes that quality HIV/AIDS education must respect and value diversity, teach tolerance, dispel stigma, foster self-esteem and empower the individual. And I get to do all of that when I speak to students, for not only do I put a face on the disease of HIV/AIDS but I also show up as a proud gay man; an alcoholic/addict in his 20th year of sobriety; a working man who volunteers as an EMT (emergency medical technician); a family man who loves his brothers and sister, nieces and nephews; and an HIV-positive man who never infected his HIV-negative partner in the eight years they were together.
Ali's message back then was clear and simple: "If I can get this, anybody can." And that message still holds true today. World AIDS Day is one of Love Heals' busiest days, and every single one of their HIV-positive speakers will be at a school putting a face on this disease and educating young people through their personal experience of living with HIV. What a powerful message; and all thanks to one brave young woman named Ali Gertz.
Jimmy Mack works full time, volunteers as an emergency medical technician, and speaks to youth about HIV/AIDS through Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. He lives in Southampton, N.Y.